It has become clear to me after the last few months that those of us in the Ag industry have it wrong when it comes to fumigants. No, not with respect to their use, but in how we address concerns about them from the general public. I think it is easy to see that public concern has not abated, which tells us that our strategy has not been working. Even worse, I think we have actually amplified public concern. So let’s talk about where we have fallen short, and how we can change it.
Traditionally, the industry response to public outcry over fumigants has had two prongs. Both of these I will argue have done no good, and both have actually made matters worse for us.
The first traditional response has been to downplay the risks. We tell people that there are many products and activities that carry more risk than fumigant use. This has not worked for the simple reason that public outcry over fumigants is an expression of anxiety. If we simply add more anxieties to the list, can we really expect concerns to abate? It has made matters worse for us by reinforcing a negative perception that farmers are ignorant of the risks associated with chemical usage, or simply don’t care. Feeding this perception has cost us dearly.
The second tactic that our industry has employed is to plead poverty. We say we must be able to use them or we will go out of business. This has not worked in part because it is a case of “crying wolf.” Frankly we have used this argument a lot over the years, but we are still here. There isn’t a lot of perceived credibility in it anymore. It also hasn’t worked because of the anxiety issue discussed above. Will a parent place our business interests ahead of the health of their child? Of course not. We need to recognize that the poverty plea will always fall on deaf ears. We further hurt our case with this line of attack by continuing to undermine confidence in our industry. Would you trust a financially shaky, desperate industry to use a chemical wisely? Or would you fear that they would have every incentive to abuse the material and cut corners on safety?
What must we do? Firstly, we have to reject the old arguments that have failed us. Secondly, we must clearly acknowledge and accept responsibility for the risks associated with these chemicals. If we do not speak clearly and reasonably about legitimate concerns, the public will listen to those who speak loudly and unreasonably instead. We need to make the case that we understand fumigant safety better than anyone; that we do not shy away from oversight because we know that the standards we set for ourselves are so high. We need to show that we have the resources, both financial and personal, to handle the use of the materials in a responsible fashion. In short, we must earn the community’s trust, and continually reinforce that trust.
Some would ask if this isn’t just a PR gimmick. I can’t deny that public relations are a factor here, but I truly believe that what I am describing is a more accurate depiction of agriculture than the one that we have helped inflict on ourselves. We can’t allow ourselves to be seen as cowboys on a shoestring budget using these chemicals recklessly. Only by holding ourselves to the very highest standards of caution, prudence, and professionalism will retain the right to use these materials.
It is as simple as that.